NASA astronauts confident Boeing’s Starliner will bring them home

The two NASA astronauts who flew to the International Space Station last month in Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft said Wednesday they have no concerns the capsule will be able to bring them home safely, even though their return has been postponed indefinitely as NASA and Boeing try to determine what caused a series of booster failures and helium leaks.

During a brief press conference from the space station, Barry “Butch” Wilmore, a veteran of two previous space flights, said that “we are absolutely confident” that the return trip will go well and that despite the problems on the way to the station, Starliner was “really impressive.”

Still, when he took manual control of the autonomous spacecraft as it approached the station on June 6, “he could see that the thrust had dropped off,” he said. “At the time, of course, we didn’t know why. The failures had just happened. You could see that it had dropped off, but it was still impressive.”

Sunita Williams, who is also on her third space flight, said she has “a very good feeling in my heart that the spacecraft will bring us home without any problems.”

But when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and Boeing are continuing to conduct ground tests to see if they can figure out why five of the spacecraft’s “reaction control thrusters,” which are used to position the vehicle, stopped working during its approach to the space station. Four of the five thrusters eventually came back online and worked properly, allowing Starliner to dock successfully. NASA has said it will not attempt to use the fifth thruster on the return trip. The spacecraft is equipped with a total of 28 such thrusters on the service module, which is used to provide power and much of the vehicle’s propulsion.

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In addition to these issues, Starliner has five helium leaks in its propulsion system. NASA has said the leaks are minor and that the spacecraft has enough helium, which is used to pressurize the propulsion system, for the remainder of the mission.

In a separate briefing Wednesday, Steve Stich, who oversees NASA’s commercial crew program, said that if all the tests don’t reveal any major problems with the thrusters, the crew could return as early as late July. “But we’ll just follow the data step by step and figure out when the right opportunity is,” he said.

The mission will be Starliner’s first flight with humans on board, a test designed to see how the vehicle performs before NASA allows a full contingent of four astronauts to fly to the space station for a stay of up to six months. SpaceX, the other company NASA relies on for crew transportation, has been flying astronauts to the space station in its Dragon capsule since 2020.

Williams and Wilmore were originally scheduled to stay in the space station for only ten days, but NASA postponed their return three times and then indefinitely as it sought to better understand the spacecraft’s problems.

The teams conducted tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, simulating the flight profile to and from the space station to see if they could determine what was causing the problems.

“What we’re really doing is just taking the time to make sure that we’ve looked under every rock and every stone,” Stich said. “Just to make sure that there’s nothing else that would surprise us.”

In a briefing late last month, he said the crew members were not stranded in space and that there were no plans for a rescue operation. “I want to make it clear that Butch and Suni are not stranded in space,” he said. “Our plan is to continue to bring them back to Starliner and bring them home when the time is right.”

On Wednesday, he reiterated that the “primary option today is to send Butch and Suni back to Starliner. At this point, we don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t be the case.” Referring to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, he added that “we have two vehicles, two different systems that we can use to return the crew, and so we have a little bit more time to go through the data and then make a decision whether we need to do something different.”

He added that “there was no discussion about sending another Dragon to rescue the Starliner crew.”

NASA has repeatedly said that Starliner is cleared to fly astronauts home in case of an emergency. Late last month, Wilmore and Williams got a real test when they were forced to board Starliner after a satellite broke apart in orbit, threatening the space station. The debris passed through without incident and Starliner “performed exceptionally well and as anticipated for this eventuality,” Ed Van Cise, a NASA flight director, said in a statement.

During their stay on the space station, Williams and Wilmore continued testing the spacecraft, including adding a full complement of four astronauts to test the life support systems.

Williams said being at the orbiting laboratory “feels like coming home. It feels good to be floating around. It feels good to be in space and to be here working with the International Space Station team. So yeah, it’s great to be here. I’m not complaining about having a couple extra weeks here.”

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